About ten or fifteen minutes into The Witch, I realized I was holding my breath. My shoulders were tense, shrugged up towards my ears as I sank further into my seat. I told myself to relax and just watch the movie, but I couldn’t. It didn’t help that I ended up curled up in my seat in preparation for the next insane development. And it didn’t help that the story became more and more unnerving and the scares more and more startling. Hours after the film had ended, I was still tense. I couldn’t stop revisiting the film, obsessing over certain scenes and replaying others in my head, desperate for details I’d missed.
It’s been a long time since a film, horror or otherwise, has provoked me like The Witch has. Few horror films have ever left me in a state of lingering physical discomfort. Not many horror movies have scared me like this, where I could not predict what fresh hell would come next. And few movies have left me this awestruck, because The Witch is one of the best horror films I’ve seen. It proves the level of art and craft the horror genre is capable of attaining.
And that’s because The Witch is not just a film. It’s an experience, a study in fear.
Specifically, The Witch examines how human beings experience fear, how they react to fear, and how they succumb to fear. The film plunges headlong into this murky part of the human psyche, aiming for an unflappably honest and brutal examination of human vulnerability.
The Witch tells the story of a seventeenth-century Puritan family, newly settled in America. After William, the family’s patriarch, publically renounces the religious authority of their settlement, the family is banished and forced to live in the wilderness. William is convinced that he is the only one who teaches the Gospel as the Lord instructed; consequently, he has no qualms about moving his wife Katherine, teenage-aged daughter Thomasin, eldest son Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas, and baby Samuel far from civilization and into a land they barely know. Instead of finding the Calvinist utopia William believes God promised him, the family finds strife and hardship. With winter fast approaching, everyone is on edge. They fear hunger, cold, and eternal damnation. And then, to make matters infinitely worse, terrible things begin to happen. Things no one can explain. Things that threaten everything they’ve worked for since leaving their comfortable home back in England.
Is God testing them? Has God forsaken them because of William’s pride? Or has a witch cursed them? There are witches in the wood, aren’t there? Could it be the Devil himself?
Who is to blame?
The Witch handled these questions and the resulting disintegration of the family with finesse and refinement. It knew exactly when to hold back, when to increase the tension, and when to unleash its on-screen horrors.
It was a breathtaking film, one that refused to pull any punches.
I cannot praise the acting enough. Every single actor, even the twins, gave excellent performances. However, the four main characters, William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) deserve special recognition. Ralph Ineson gave a heartfelt performance as the conflicted and self-doubting but prideful patriarch. Kate Dickie acted the hell out of every scene she was in, oscillating between raw emotions and an icy countenance. She almost stole the movie with a poignant, anguished monologue. Harvey Scrimshaw was amazing as the melancholy young peacekeeper of the family. He embodied a role rife with challenges and nailed scenes that seasoned adult actors would struggle with.
And Anya Taylor-Joy? Simply, she was the movie. Her performance as the dutiful yet independent family scapegoat affected me deeply. She was natural and organic. I believed her desperation and confusion. I loved watching her, even in her most disturbing scenes. With a less-talented actress, the movie would have failed. She anchored the other performances, thereby anchoring the whole movie.
Visually, The Witch was marvelous. I love beautiful horror and The Witch delivered. This story could not have been told in any other medium. The camera guided me from pensive and foreboding landscapes to claustrophobic and strained family scenes. Through the whole movie, the shadowy, muted, stark images manifested a unique creative voice. I lost count of the many frames whose beauty and composition captivated me, all while increasingly horrific events unfolded on screen. The visuals gave me a keen sense of discomfort and apprehension on a level that few horror films reach.
Narratively, the story was masterfully written. The script rendered whole characters, such that their motives are never in doubt and their feelings are never unclear. The story wisely allowed these characters to take the lead, leaving me to watch, aghast, as the increasing stress of their predicament took its toll. As the tension ratcheted up and as they grew more desperate, the writing grew tauter. No scene was extraneous and no line was wasted. Even “slow” scenes roiled with dread just beneath the surface, the panic and pressure and terror finally erupting in accusations, confrontation, hysteria, and violence.
While this movie was by no means torture porn, what little gore appeared was utilized to extreme effect. Much was left to the imagination, forcing me into a powerful albeit vicarious experience where I could not stop questioning what I witnessed. Despite its advanced themes and measured approach, The Witch never got too cerebral. Even with this intelligent treatment, it was an incredibly frightening and disturbing film. It was just so good at being both restrained and forceful.
That was the genius of this film, which belongs to Robert Eggers, the film’s writer and director. The Witch is a great horror film because Eggers understands how to use horror tropes in service of his story. He never allows these devices to take over his film. The images and characters and music and conflicts were masterfully orchestrated, which meant the film didn’t have to resort to cheap scares or long-winded exposition to terrify its audience and advance its message.
Eggers demonstrates a deft comprehension of his craft, showcasing some of the most exquisite filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time, within and outside of the horror genre. Eggers brought me close to the family so that I saw their resentment, their sorrow, their pain. This emotional and psychological entanglement with the family ensured that I dreaded each succeeding scene and was powerless to look away as the family tore itself apart. I felt the cold. I saw the ruined harvest. I felt the immense forest. I stared out into the unfathomable darkness beyond the small cabin. I saw the judging glances and hurt expressions. I flinched when they flinched. I witnessed things I didn’t understand (one of my favorite scenes in the movie contains so much “What the *%#@!!!” that I literally didn’t know what the objective truth was, if there was one). I was there, watching that poor family lose control.
Eggers was always in control, from a writing and directing standpoint. His style reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick because, like Kubrick, Eggers completely controls the information he communicates in every single frame. (To be clear, Eggers does not share Kubrick’s devotion to the one-point perspective or narrative coldness.) I sensed that Eggers had personally decided every detail, from the atmospheric music to the period costumes to selecting the right creepy farm animals to the way the blood splattered in the film’s vicious climax. There was nothing he didn’t think of, nothing he didn’t approve, no components of filmmaking that he didn’t artfully mold to fit his overarching vision for the film. His commitment to perfection was obvious, and The Witch is an amazing film because of it.
His vision accomplished not only a terrifying film but also a grim treatise on how fear can become a simple yet effective weapon. The real danger presents itself when someone wishes to exploit fear, because whatever wields this weapon can easily twist and corrupt its victims beyond recognition.
Even though the story is set in our country’s infancy, The Witch presents a timely and timeless message. In the face of great uncertainty and perceived danger from unknown evils, it’s all too easy to turn against each other. I won’t go so far as to claim that Eggers intended to make a statement on the current state of panicked social and political discourse in the United States. But as the credits rolled, that’s all I really thought about. People are afraid. Between explicit threats of violence from extremist terrorist organizations, the looming cloud of infectious diseases penetrating our borders, and the ever-present concerns for the economy and crime, people are turning on each other. They want someone to blame.
This mentality is dangerous. Instead of banding together to find strength in each other, there are those in the county who seek to divide us. We all know how fear can consume a person to the point where he or she is convinced that drastic measures are necessary. And if a person commits unspeakable deeds as a result of their fear, they’ve done nothing but made a sacrifice in its name. The real danger persists, waiting for another opportunity to strike.
Maybe Eggers didn’t set out to tackle the current political and social environment, but he sure does hit a nerve. The Witch cautions us against giving in to fear. While it admits the existence of monsters among us, it warns us that they were not born of evil, but forged by our own fears.